Venice in early January 2004 was misty in the mornings, frequented by a sprinkling of Asians during the day, silent in the evenings except for desultory Vivaldi concerts here and there - tourist fodder. With Paolo Giordani's odd guidebook in hand, I explored a maddening labyrinth of lanes and campielli. That the cult of a dead past is not a foreign intrusion on Venice but a disease of Venetians themselves is proved by Giordani's fetishism. He denounces the Strada Nova, the only non-liquid thoroughfare in the city, as an act of Austrian vandalism comparable only to Haussmann's boulevards in Paris!
On the long and quiet Rio Marin, a backwater if ever there was one, I tracked down the Palazzo Capello, the residence of the Misses Bordereau in The Aspern Papers. Perhaps the house has been cleaned up, since it has none of the mouldering quaintness Henry James's narrator ascribes to. There is a garden, indeed, but it seems to belong to the huge neighbouring Palazzo (Palazzo Mocenigo Corner?).
The latter had hosted a banquet for Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino and the other glittering stars who were in town filming "The Merchant of Venice" "on location". Lately I saw the result - a quite disappointing coffee-table effort, under-rehearsed, and drab, in part because of the season it was filmed in. In the best Hollywood tradition, the text is butchered, so that parts of it are meaningless - "Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of chaff" though he has been allowed to speak hardly at all. Compare Trevor Nunn's electrifying production of this play for an example of what intelligent interpretation means. When Portia speaks the pregnant line, "Who is the merchant here, and who the Jew?" the full depth of Shakespeare's ironic intentions comes to light. Here the line is thrown away as are all the other lines. The entire film is languorous, episodic, lacking in dramatic structure and dialectic. Of course extra lines are added to clarify the plot for the LCD. There is an absurd prelude showing Jews being persecuted in Venice - one tossed in the canal. Antonio is shown voiding his rheum on Shylock's beard, even though Irons acts him in the play as a staid gentleman who would never do such a thing.
In a charming bookshop recently opened by an enterprising Englishman in the heart of the Ghetto, I found interesting relics of the early seventeenth-century Interdict controversy that pitted Pope Paul V against Venice and her theological counsellor Paolo Sarpi, as well as a book all Jamesians should read: John Pemble's "Venice Rediscovered" (Oxford, 1995). Pemble tells how English and American settlers became the new patrician caste of Venice in the late nineteenth century. They "did not create a world of their own on the margins of local society. They found themselves a role in the world of the Venetians. They became in effect Venetian aristocrats, replenishing a caste that was no longer able to replenish itself" (p. 47). Horatio Brown "strove to attract his friends to Venice… He dined with Leslie Stephen at St Ives and with Henry James at Rye" (p. 53).
The background to "The Aspern Papers" becomes richer the more one explores it (see http://www2.newpaltz.edu/~hathawar/ejournal2.html). As a disciple of Balzac, James researched in depth the places in which his tales are set. If London was the city and society he had studied most, though with particular attention to the privileged classes, he may have mastered Venice more thoroughly. (His Paris centers on the newly built beaux quartiers, the Boulevard Malesherbes of "The Ambassadors", along whose magnificent but rather unpopulated length I strolled a month later; his Rome and Florence remain somewhat more touristic.). "Here James was apparently transferring characters from the lumber of history to the stage-scenery of romance. In fact, it is in this gothic scenario that his sensitivity to period and place is most acute and his fiction most realistic. The records of the Anglo-Americans who lived in Venice before the First World War show how sound his instincts were when he turned to Venice for 'the illusion of life'. They confirm that the events of his story, while possible elsewhere, in Venice were eminently probable. Indeed, they not only testify to the plausibility of his narrative, they replicate its essential features with uncanny closeness" (pp. 50-1). James' friend Constance Fenimore Woolson, "a lonely and deaf spinster" is not the only contemporary model for Miss Tina Bordereau; "the novelist Constance Fletcher, who lived with her aged mother in the Palazzo Cappello, the very house that he had in mind in writing his novella, was rumoured to have been the mistress of Lord Lovelace, Byron's grandson, and to have in her possession unpublished letters of the poet. And then there were the circumstances surrounding the papers of John Addington Symonds, who died in 1893. Here we have all the ingredients of a Jamesian drame intime: documents revealing a scandalous life locked away for many years in a Venetian palazzo" (p. 51). Symonds' daughter, Margaret Vaughan, "wandered between two worlds - the modern world of frank language, sexual liberation, Post-Impressionism; and the old world of polite conversation, biblical morality, and Academy portraits" (p. 61). She is the model for Sally Seton in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway", and "she might easily have become the model of a Jamesian heroine" (pp. 61-2). She censored Horatio Brown's edition of her father's letters, but later it was he who sought to destroy indiscreet letters of Symonds, and a codicil to his will specified that the Symonds papers in his possession should be burnt, a task executed by Edmund Gosse and the librarian Charles Hagberg Wright in a bonfire worthy of Miss Tina (p. 68).
"Katherine de Kay Bronson ranks among the founders of the Anglo-American colony and she did much to create its characteristic flavour - that distinctive bouquet which transatlantic wealth, culture and sensibility evoke from the faded fabrics of the European past. She more than anyone was responsible for the memory of cosmopolitan company and civilized talk in ancestral salons, of evening light and cigarettes on Venetian balconies, which lies like an incantation behind so much of what Henry James wrote about the Old World... She rented the sixteenth-century Casa Alvisi, on the Grand Canal opposite the Salute, together with a guest suite in the adjacent Palazzo Giustinian-Recanti, and expatriate society, in the words of Henry James, 'pressed into her rooms'. James tried to resist the vortex of her hospitality. 'the milieu', he wrote, 'was too American'. Nevertheless, he became one of her close friends and recalled the long years of her Venetian residence as 'a sort of legend and boast'. He introduced her into 'The Aspern Papers' as Mrs Prest, and commemorated her reign at Casa Alvini in 'Italian Hours'. Even closer was her friendship with Robert Browning" (pp. 43-4). I note that the name Prest comes from the word "prest" in The Merchant of Venice, Act I. "Constance Fletcher, who had remained in the city as a nurse throughout the war, was, like Horatio, soon forced by poverty to move to smaller premises. She gave up the Palazzo Cappello and took an apartment on the Zattere, where she died in 1938" (p. 191).
Pemble also sheds new light on the cultural anxieties expressed in "The Princess Casamassima", in which Hyacinth sees that the revolutionary Hoffendahl "would cut up the ceilings of Veronese into strips, so that everyone might have a little piece" (quoted, p. 173). "As a political parable of aristocratic Beauty and proletarian Beast 'The Princess Casamassima' was soon made redundant by the complexity of events. But to see the novel thus is to see it with one eye closed. In its stereoscopic depth it has other dimensions... In 'The Princess Casamassima' he reveals a Venice at risk not only from a social and political underworld, but from a psychological underworld too. He exposes the malefic forces beneath the surface of polite society; and as a study of a civilization threatened with destruction by the human perversity of its aristocratic rulers, the novel was more than merely plausible' (p. 179).
2006: I note two titles that can be added to the bibliography for "Pushkin in 'The Aspern Papers'" (http://www2.newpaltz.edu/~hathaway/ejournal2.html):
Andrew R. Durkin, Henry James's Response to Pushkin: "Pikovaya dama" and "The Aspern Papers", in R. A. Maguire and A. Timberlake, eds. American Contributions to the International Congress of Slavists, Cracow, August-September 1998 (Ljubljana, 2003).
Jean Norris Scales, “The Ironic Smile: Pushkin's ‘The Queen of Spades’ and James' ‘The Aspern Papers.’” CLA 34:4 (1991), 486-90.